Charlemagne (part 2 of 2): The Carolingian revival

A brief introduction to Charlemagne’s military campaigns and the cultural revival that he supported.

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] I love to find out where things come from. The question mark is Carolingian. It comes from about 800.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:12] It is odd to find out the origin of something we take for granted, like the question mark. We use the term “Carolingian” to refer to the time of Charlemagne and his successors. Charlemagne, also Charles the Great, or Carolus Magnus, hence the name Carolingian.

Dr. Zucker: [0:30] He was a king. He was famously crowned emperor in 800 by the Pope in Rome. He ruled over a collection of kingdoms that he had conquered, that his father had conquered, that his grandfather had conquered.

Dr. Harris: [0:43] He was a Frank.

Dr. Zucker: [0:44] The ancient Romans would have considered them barbarians. These were people who migrated into Western Europe from the East, and who settled into what is now Germany and Northern France.

[0:53] Eventually, over generations — this is before Charlemagne — they were able to consolidate their power, and by the time we get to about 800, Charlemagne is ruling a vast expanse of Europe.

[1:04] How do we put together this idea of this warlord conquering whole kingdoms and somebody who invents the question mark, who invents punctuation as we use it?

Dr. Harris: [1:13] Strangely, those things go together. Charlemagne had to govern a vast kingdom where there were many different languages and dialects spoken. He needed to organize and educate to create a Christian kingdom, a Christian empire.

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] This was a really brutal period. These were warlords. [This was] when castles were being built because people were marauding. Armies were attacking. Fields were being burned. This was a tough period.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] The stability that was there because of the Roman Empire, the relative stability, is gone. There were only vestiges of the civilizing functions of the Roman Empire.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] The Romans had law, they had roads, they had trade systems. They had educational systems.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] They had a vast bureaucracy and trained civil servants to help the government run. All of that was gone.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] They had to figure out how they could create systems again based, in part, on the old Roman systems that were capable of holding this empire together.

[2:11] Charlemagne was deeply religious. He took his Catholic faith very seriously, and that became the binding agent for all of these diverse peoples and lands.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] Charlemagne wanted to rule over a Christian kingdom and saw himself as a divinely ordained emperor.

Dr. Zucker: [2:29] The problem was that most of his religious bureaucracy, his priests, were illiterate. He needed to find a way that he could begin to educate these people so that he could expose the population to a correct version of Catholicism. That is, they could get it right.

Dr. Harris: [2:46] It was important to get it right because what had happened over the centuries is that, because of the lack of a central government and central structures, different tribes were doing things differently. Different tribes had their own set of laws, they had different ways of practicing Christianity. You had too many diverse practices.

[3:04] He was interested in education, educating the abbots, the bishops, the priests, so that when they read the liturgy, they were reading the correct thing, they were teaching the correct ideas.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] We’re not talking about the peasantry.

Dr. Harris: [3:18] The priests are teaching to those very people, but it’s the priestly class that needed to be literate and educated.

Dr. Zucker: [3:24] Charlemagne is creating schools in order to accomplish this. He’s bringing together scholars for his own palace school, in fact, from all across Europe. He brings in people from Spain, from Italy, from England, from Ireland. He wants to learn how to write Latin himself.

Dr. Harris: [3:39] Well, to get a sense of how important learning was to Charlemagne, we have this quote from an early biographer: “He avidly pursued the liberal arts and greatly honored those teachers whom he deeply respected. To learn grammar, he followed the teaching of Peter of Pisa.


“[3:56] For the other disciplines, he took as his teacher Alcuin of Britain, the most learned man in the entire world. Charlemagne invested a great deal of time and effort studying rhetoric, dialectic, and particularly astronomy with him. He learned the art of calculating, and with deep purpose and great curiosity, investigated the movement of the stars.


“[4:14] He also attempted to learn how to write, and for this reason, he used to place wax tablets and notebooks under his pillow on his bed, so that if he had any free time, he might accustom his hand to forming letters, but this effort came too late in life and he achieved little success.”

[4:32] I love that image of Charlemagne, the emperor, sleeping with a tablet under his pillow so he can squeeze in some time to practice writing.

Dr. Zucker: [4:41] Charlemagne created the political stability and the wealth that allowed him to begin to institute a kind of rigorous educational system, not for the vast majority, but for the bureaucracy, the clergy. Those people needed to be able to read the Bible. They needed to be able to read Latin.

[5:00] This is a particularly important moment in European history. Remember, Latin had been spoken by the ancient Romans, but that was hundreds of years before.

Dr. Harris: [5:08] Latin was, importantly, the language of government, and it was the language of the church, the two central authorities in Charlemagne’s kingdom.

Dr. Zucker: [5:17] Language is a living thing, and it changes over time. This is the moment in history Latin begins to evolve into what we will eventually recognize as Spanish, as French, as Italian…

[5:29] the divergence of what had been Latin. Charlemagne was interested in revising Latin, removing the change that had accumulated in Latin over the centuries, and reforming Latin, bringing it back to what he thought was its classical form, which means that we really have two different kinds of language.

[5:49] [We have] the high-language Latin of the church, of government, and we have the common spoken languages of the people. What does he do? He sets up schools throughout his kingdom, especially in monasteries.

Dr. Harris: [6:01] Charlemagne set up scriptoria, places where the monks could copy books.

Dr. Zucker: [6:06] Now, what this allows is the ramping up of the production of religious texts and other ancient texts. The number of manuscripts that come out of scriptoriums increases dramatically.

Dr. Harris: [6:17] In the several hundred years before Charlemagne, we have 500 manuscripts that survive. Between 750 and 900, about the time that we consider the Carolingian period of Charlemagne and his successors, we have 7,000. There’s clearly a deliberate attempt to retrieve, to preserve, and to copy text, and also to correct texts.

Dr. Zucker: [6:43] Think about what went into creating a book. These were handmade objects on materials that were quite expensive. This is long before paper was used in the West. What they used was parchment, sheepskin.

Dr. Harris: [6:55] All of this is being done by hand. This is a really hard thing for us to imagine. There is a monk in a scriptorium. By some accounts, one skilled scribe could copy as many as seven pages with 25 lines on each page in one day. This is slow going. It’s expensive, and the scribes themselves had to be literate.

Dr. Zucker: [7:17] There’s a great quote by a scribe complaining about his work.

Dr. Harris: [7:20] “The art of scribes is the hardest of arts. It is difficult toil. It is hard to bend the neck and plow through the pages for three hours. Three fingers write, but the whole body toils. Just as it is sweet for the sailor to reach harbor, so sweet is it for the writer to put the final letter on the page.”

Dr. Zucker: [7:40] Of course, there was this newfound emphasis on doing it exactly right.

Dr. Harris: [7:46] Because they were so concerned about doing it exactly right, the Carolingians helped to develop a new kind of script called Minuscule. Just like Charlemagne was interested in standardizing, correcting the Bible and other texts, he was interested in standardizing writing so that more and more people could read it and more and more monks would be able to copy it.

Dr. Zucker: [8:09] Right. He was lowering the bar in terms of the difficulty of writing so that he could create more efficiency and create more production, so that more books could go out from the monasteries to the local churches and more people could get it right.

Dr. Harris: [8:24] Before this, writing had become very unclear. Words were elided with one another. Scribes often showed off with little calligraphic flourishes that made it difficult to read. Charlemagne was all about legibility, making everything clear and correct.

[8:42] Charlemagne is all about correcting, reforming, standardizing, and wielded enormous power to make those things happen. It’s important to remember at the same time that he’s doing all these fabulous educational and cultural reforms, he’s also leading armies and conquering people.

Dr. Zucker: [9:05] All this education was necessary because Charlemagne was trying to create this Christian kingdom.

[9:10] He had moved beyond the borders that his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather had accumulated. He moved south into Italy, conquering the Germanic tribe, the Lombards, and taking on the title King of the Lombards.

[9:22] He pushed successfully into Spain just a bit in the area that is now Catalonia and the Basque region. He pushed into Brittany, and probably with the most difficulty, he subdued the Saxons. This was a non-Christian tribe in the Northeast.

Dr. Harris: [9:39] He Christianized them. It took several decades. For all his educational reforms, we have to also remember that he could be a ruthless warrior.

Dr. Zucker: [9:49] There’s one particular episode that really brings that home. Charlemagne apparently had thought he had subdued the Saxons. He had granted titles to their leaders as aristocrats in his kingdom. But some of his men were attacked by a group of rebel Saxons and Charlemagne took his vengeance on Saxon captives, executing 4,500 in one day, cutting off their heads.

Dr. Harris: [10:11] We still have an enormously important legacy from Charlemagne and his successors. Many historians call this Carolingian period a renaissance, or at the very least, a revival, a revival of classical learning. Charlemagne intentionally looked back to ancient Rome, especially the period of ancient Rome that was Christian, for example under Constantine.

[10:36] Above and beyond the question mark, 90 percent of classical texts survived due to Charlemagne’s scribes.

Dr. Zucker: [10:42] We’re talking about the great writings of ancient Rome. We have these because Charlemagne and Charlemagne’s court thought that they were important. They copied them multiple times, and some of those manuscripts have survived.

Dr. Harris: [10:54] In fact, some scholars believe that Charlemagne actually issued a call across his empire for rare and important books so that they would be copied and preserved.

Dr. Zucker: [11:05] We have a lot to thank Charlemagne for. We have the question mark, we have our understanding of classical authors and early religious texts, and people have seen Charlemagne as responsible for, to a large extent, inventing what we will come to know as modern Europe.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Charlemagne (part 2 of 2): The Carolingian revival," in Smarthistory, July 4, 2018, accessed June 10, 2024,